Palestinian ambassador to UK disappointed with Labour response to Gaza bombing [and defends cancelation of elections]

Husam Zomlot (MEE)

Mohamed Hashem & Frank Andrews 

Middle East Eye  / June 17, 2021

Speaking to MEE, Zomlot defended the PA’s controversial decision to postpone [cancel] long-awaited elections.

Palestinians were let down by the Labour Party’s response to the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza, Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestine mission to the UK, told Middle East Eye.

“We expected more of our friends in the Labour Party,” he said.

In an in-depth interview, Zomlot also framed debates about Benjamin Netanyahu’s legacy and Naftali Bennett’s nascent premiership as a symptom of the rightwards shift of the Israeli public, before answering criticisms of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) decision to postpone elections set for earlier this year.

Zomlot, who was previously head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) delegation in the United States before the Trump administration shut it down, criticized the British and US stances on Israel and hailed recent international protests and newfound Palestinian unity as a turning point in the push for recognition of a state.

Last month, as Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day conflict and violence, arrests and killings flared in Jerusalem and cities across Israel and the occupied West Bank, TV interviews with the ambassador were shared widely online.

Zomlot, who has held several positions in Fatah and the Palestinian presidency, was praised in some quarters for refusing to blame Hamas rocket fire for the deadly surge in violence, instead criticizing the dominant media narratives of the situation in Israel-Palestine and underlining the ongoing and continued Israeli violence against Palestinians.

‘We expected more’

The Palestinian cause has often attracted the support of members and supporters of the Labour Party, particularly under the 2015-2020 leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

However, Zomlot said the Palestinian authorities were disappointed at how the UK’s opposition party reacted to the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children. Palestinian rockets killed 13 in Israel, including two children. A further 29 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“We expected clarity of position about the atrocities that Israel has committed against our people,” Zomlot told MEE.

Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to recognize a Palestinian state during the G7 leaders’ summit, which took place last weekend.  

“We recognize that that’s a good step by the Labour leadership,” Zomlot said, “but we expect much more of Labour.”

The Labour leader was criticized by party members last month for a belated response to violence perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. 

In April, he failed to respond to a letter, seen exclusively by MEE, in which British-Palestinian members raised concerns about internal treatment.

Some observers have linked Starmer’s recent comments on a Palestinian state with an upcoming by-election in Batley and Spen, in West Yorkshire, on 1 July. The constituency has a significant Muslim population and Palestine has emerged as a key issue for voters.

Zomlot also called on the UK and US governments to recognize the Palestinian state and sanction Israel for killing Palestinian civilians and bombing vital infrastructure, in line with international law. He suggested this could be done through visa restrictions for Israelis illegally settling in occupied territory and arms embargoes.

“For 20, 30 years, it was the political arena, the two-state solution, negotiations – we are done with that,” he said. “We have negotiated enough, 30 years. Now we are saying international resolutions are not up for negotiations.”

“You say that these settlements have to stop,” he added, addressing the British government, “so why do you import their products?”

As for the US, Zomlot said its “monopoly over mediation” – referring to efforts spanning from the 1991 Madrid conference, to the 1993 Oslo process, to last year’s so-called Abraham Accords – “is over”.

The US cannot mediate between Israeli and Palestinian authorities on its own, he said, “because Israel in the US is not a foreign policy issue – Israel in the US is a domestic issue”.

International sanctions are needed, he argued, not only to punish illegal Israeli action, but also to jolt the Israeli public out of what he sees as its near-total apathy to the plight – and rights – of Palestinians.

“For the last two years, Israel has convened four elections, and in these four elections, the issue of Palestine… did not factor an iota,” he said.

“The Israeli public is indifferent, completely indifferent… because there are no consequences. There are no costs associated with the illegality.”

Recognition of Palestinian statehood, he added, would “give a straightforward message” that the UK and US are not just paying lip service to Palestinian aspirations of sovereignty.

Bennett, Netanyahu and the Israeli mainstream

Asked about whether he has any hopes for Palestinian statehood under the new coalition government, led by far-right politician Naftali Bennett, Zomlot replied: “We don’t expect anything, to tell you the truth. But this is not about Bennett or about Netanyahu. It’s primarily about the Israeli public.”

“The Israeli public so far has been shifting to the right and to the right and to the right and to the right, all the way to the Kahanist movement,” he added, referring to Rabbi Meir Kahane, an influential far-right figure who believed in a homogeneously Jewish state run according to the Torah, and the complete expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, by force if necessary.

“So what we need to focus on is not ‘what are we going to do with Bennett?’” Zomlot continued. “The key issue here is ‘how do we change the public sentiments in Israel?’

“And that brings the discussion about sanctions, about consequences, about accountability, because without that, I think the majority of the Israeli public is very comfortable and they will keep reproducing the Bennetts, and the Kahanists, and the settler movement.”

Asked about the legacy of outgoing prime minister Netanyahu, Zomlot said: “He’s the one who has put the real nail in the coffin of the peace process, destroyed it. And also he’s the one who has helped the world to reveal the true situation in Israel… who really exposed Israel as it is.”

Abbas under fire

Earlier this year, the PA and the PLO agreed to postpone parliamentary elections planned for May, citing Israel refusing voting rights for Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem.

The Hamas movement, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, announced its opposition to postponing the elections, which would have been the first to take place since legislative polls in 2006 that caused a massive rupture between Fatah and Hamas, effectively isolating Gaza from the West Bank.

The decision to cancel the polls angered many Palestinians, who were particularly critical of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

A group of around 3,000 Palestinians, including many influential academics, signed a letter calling for him to step down from the Fatah movement, the PLO and the PA.

Zomlot defended the decision.

“It was absolutely obvious that Israel will torpedo… elections in Jerusalem. So what do you do?” he said. “If there are national elections, they should happen in the entire Palestinian areas.”

“I believe that our president wanted to convene elections because he knows that elections will far exceed just a democratic process,” Zomlot added. Not only would elections involving Jerusalemites bring in new leadership, he said, but they would also unite the political system in the West Bank and Gaza, and “reaffirm our presence” in the holy city.

After the delay, and the PA’s perceived impotence during the 11-day Israeli offensive in May, Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas in the diaspora, told MEE that the group was now “leading the Palestinian struggle”.

In response, Zomlot told MEE: “It would be very unfortunate if any Palestinian political faction sees some sort of a monopoly of struggle and a monopoly of resistance. That would be a very bad reading of the mood and the mindset of the Palestinian people, that of unity of the nation, the unity of the purpose, of the unity of the suffering.”

“I recommend for them not to do that because that will lose them popular support. This is about us all. We are all in this together,” he added.

“I am hoping that elections will be convened at the absolute earliest opportunity possible,” he said. “This is what the Palestinian president wants. This is what the PLO wants, and this is definitely what the Palestinian people want and deserve.”

New momentum

After the events of recent months, many young Palestinians are disillusioned with their political leadership, and have chosen not to align themselves with either Fatah or Hamas, often expressing this discontent on social media.

“I say to them that the most important message is what you have already delivered,” said Zomlot. “Those youngsters, the youth of Sheikh Jarrah, the youth of the West Bank, the youth of Gaza, the youth inside the 48 areas… they are all over.”

“I tell them what they have done is historic in every sense,” Zomlot said, congratulating young Palestinians on helping galvanize international solidarity with their cause.

 “The Palestinian people has managed to deliver to the very psyche of every Israeli that not only we are on the table, we are the table itself.”

Zomlot said Palestinians needed to capitalize on the “unprecedented momentum” of the wave of worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations since Israel’s offensive.

“We want the momentum to continue,” he added, saying it was key protesters helped convert it into “concrete action by their governments”.

While the envoy acknowledged much of the new impetus came from young, online Palestinians, he added that “their parents have done it too, and their grandparents”.

“We want to be loyal, loyal to our parents, to our previous generations, learn the lessons from the mistakes, but also build on the successes. Everybody negated us only 100 years ago in this very city we’re sitting in, negated our presence, our existence as a nation. Yet today I stand before you. I speak to you as the ambassador of Palestine.”

“This did not come out of nothing,” he added. “It came out of blood and sweat and determination of generation after generation. So may they pick up from where we ended and may they build on it.”

Mohamed Hashem is a journalist at Middle East Eye

Frank Andrews is a news editor at Middle East Eye